St. Augustine's Confessions By St. Augustine Summary and Analysis Book 4: Chapters 13-16

Summary

At this time, Augustine still does not understand beauty; seeking to explain it, he writes a work On the Beautiful and the Fitting, which he has since lost. He dedicates it to a famous orator, whom he admired and wants to imitate. Augustine considers the nature of fame: He does not want empty celebrity, like actors and gladiators have, but something more serious. Augustine knows nothing about the man except what others said about him, yet he wants the man to admire his own work. Augustine remarks that he should show less intelligence and greater faith.

Analysis

Augustine wrote his book De pulchro et apto (On the Beautiful and the Fitting) in about the year 380, when he was 26 or 27 years old. The book has not survived, but by Augustine's report, it appears to have been an early, misguided attempt at describing the Platonic ascent that he later grasps fully in Book 7. Augustine claims not to remember much about it, except that it showed him still mired in a literal, physical understanding of the universe and of God. It also shows that he was already familiar with the ideas of the Neo-Platonists, because he uses the terms "Monad" and "Dyad." Although these were Platonic concepts, Neo-Platonism was not necessarily incompatible with Manichean beliefs, particularly in its insistence that evil has its origins in physical matter, with an existence separate from an immaterial God. Augustine also reports that he read Aristotle's Categories, which sought to classify the physical world, although the famous book did him no good, because it was still grounded in explanations of the physical.

Augustine's observations on fame may be of interest to readers in a modern, media-saturated society. Augustine comments that he actually knows nothing about the orator he admires so much, apart from the report of other people, who also know nothing in particular about him. If the gossip about the orator had been negative, Augustine would never have thought of him, although the man himself may have been just as talented as Augustine supposed. Augustine's vanity and desire for approval manifests itself here: Although he has never met the man, he is eager to attract the man's attention and approval. But Augustine wants "serious" fame for himself, not the kind of "low" celebrity that actors and gladiators (the star athletes of his time) possess, despite the fact that he admires these same celebrities himself. Once again, the irrational contradictions of Augustine's misdirected loves are on display.

Despite his avowals of his own unworthiness, Augustine does seem to allow himself a few moments of intellectual vanity in his description of how intelligent he is and how easily he masters a book like the Categories, which was famously difficult. Augustine's larger point, however, is that such books are not so magnificent as their worldly fame would lead people to believe, and that intelligence without faith is not as admirable as faith without intelligence. Augustine revisits this point in the opening chapters of Book 5.

Glossary

Monad and Dyad Neo-Platonic philosophy had a triadic conception of the divine being. The Monad, or One, is transcendent and ineffable. There are two emanations from the Monad: the Dyad (or Intelligence) and the World-Soul. In the Dyad, the perfect unity of the One becomes divided to Ideas, and the World-Soul expresses these Ideas as physical Forms. In his discussion, Augustine indicates that he was identifying the Monad with the "good" God of Manichaeism, and the Dyad with the Manichaean concept of evil as a substance.

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